When Hollywood turned Montreal upside down

Our Made in MTL series examines an unusual and unique sci-fi film from 2012.

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The film: Upside Down (2012)

Does Montreal play itself? No. It’s nothing and everything at once, flipped on top of itself. It’s very complicated. Please read on.

Notable local talent: For a movie with such an expansive premise, there are only like five or six characters of any import and lots of tiny bit parts. Those are the ones that generally went to Montrealers, including Vlasta Vrana and Paul Ahmarani as TransWorld employees with more than one line apiece. The other major roles in the film are filled by non-local Canadian actors like Blu Mankuma.

Most egregious local landmarks: Though the film was clearly shot here, it utilizes a peculiar blend of live-action and CGI to create its locations. Basically, real locations are “papered over” with CGI in such a way that a tangible location like Place Ville-Marie will be perceptible, but soon fade into a trippy upside-down megapolis. The rich “upper” world is personified by the aforementioned Place Ville-Marie and its sleek downtown surroundings, while the poorer “lower” world is played by the port and its dirty old silos.

upside down city

Nothing pains me more than a shitty movie with grand ambitions. A movie where no one appears to be trying is one thing; one where everyone tries very, very hard but is apparently under a collective delusion is another. Collective delusion and unfettered ambition are important facets of creative work, but they can describe something as well-loved as Star Wars as much as something that has been collectively ignored, such as Jupiter Ascending. Generally speaking, if you need to establish a complex social order within the first 10 minutes of your movie for it to make sense, you’re playing with fire. While Upside Down doesn’t quite operate in the Southland Tales arena of tedious multimedia world-building, it is indeed a fairly straightforward love story that revolves around complex, made-up rules of physics.

upside down 4In the world of Upside Down, there are actually two worlds. These orbit each other and have opposite gravity. If someone from the lower world were to visit the upper world (a thing that is frowned upon because people from the lower world are dirty and poor), they would have to attach all kinds of metal doodads from that other world to weigh them down. There are points where the two worlds converge, such as in an office building that bridges the gaps between both worlds and where each cubicle has another, upside-down cubicle on top of it. (Stay with me — the Wikipedia article is more wordy and perhaps more comprehensible, though not by much.)

It’s at one of those converging points that lower-world Adam (Jim Sturgess) meets Eden (Kirsten Dunst). They have as much of a young-person idyll as they can have considering one of them is constantly upside down, but this angers the people from the upper world, who shoot at Adam while he’s trying to “lower” Eden back into the upper world. She cracks her head on the way down and forgets everything about him until he happens upon her appearance on a quiz show 10 years later. He’s now the inventor of a face cream/magical serum that will likely interest TransWorld, so he finagles his way into a job in order to remind Eden of their undying love.

upside down ballroom

You know how you read about all of these back stories to prog-rock concept albums and they sort of make sense if you place them in the context of synth solos and plodding choruses, yet they aren’t exactly the kind of thing that would be pleasant to sit down and read? Upside Down kind of functions like that: a simplistic, naive love story wrapped up in several dozen levels of impenetrable physics-based bullshit, like the improbable labour of love of a teenage stoner who happens to be both really into Rush and math class, but not so good at talking to girls. It’s one thing to demand a certain involvement of the audience through narrative complexity; it’s another to build a world so completely beholden to ass-backwards physics that are apparently constantly in flux that the viewer can never take a minute to focus on the plot without wondering why and how they can manage to float upside down in the upper-world when the lower-world serum doesn’t apply to blah blah blah.

Upside Down, directed by Juan Diego Solanas, wears its influences on its sleeve: it’s bits of Eternal Sunshine and Brazil given a liberal dose of Jean-Pierre Jeunet quirk and wrapped in a trippy, psychedelic CGI sheen that’s quite honestly like nothing I’ve ever seen. It certainly looks singular, with aggressively bright colours and deliberately off-kilter lighting that actually succeeds at giving the world the tripped-out, otherworldly look it’s going for. It’s when faced with things like this that I feel horrible shooting down ambition; every frame of this film is resplendent with the hours upon hours of work put in by CGI artists that are clearly trying to do something beyond the one CGI monster fighting another CGI monster in a superhero film, and yet it’s wasted in the background of a makeout scene that leaves the viewer mostly pondering the probabilities of the serum having worn off by now.

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It also doesn’t help that the film is blanketed by an iPod-commercial-friendly score by Sigur Rós and Benoît Charest that, while not objectively terrible in and of itself, is laid over most scenes, giving them a gross, cotton-y life insurance commercial vibe (almost every song features some sort of lyrical variation on going up, flying up, moving towards the top, love feeling like flying, weightlessness, overcoming obstacles, etc.).

It has happened a couple of times that I’ve started a movie for Made in MTL and opted out at the beginning when I saw that its MTL-ness was barely there (this happens a lot with heavily CGI’d films or low-key, single-location genre films). When I saw the trippy visuals and zonked-out backgrounds that constitute Upside Down, I toyed with the idea of giving up — but I actually sort of wanted to see where the movie would take me. Certainly, a concept as dense and audience-unfriendly as this one couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow. As it turns out, it was going nowhere great — the film ends with one of the most patronizing, dashed-off endings in recent memory. Though it’s destined to live on forever as the silent visual accompaniment to many a DJ night, Upside Down is hardly worth it. ■

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